September 23, 2019

Dual Tragedy of the Plasco Building Fire

For many Iranian-American Jews, the fire in and collapse of the historic Plasco Building in Tehran on Jan. 19 was a tragedy many times over.

The heartbreak comes not only from the loss of 75 innocent lives who tried to fight the fire or were trapped in the building; the building’s demise also rekindled the painful memories of the unjust execution of Habib Elghanian, the Jewish community leader who originally built the structure. The Plasco Building was one of the remaining symbols of the Jewish community’s height of success in Iran during its modern “golden age.” Not to acknowledge the Elghanian family’s role in this building’s creation and the tragedy that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the Iranian regime is also a travesty.

Media outlets worldwide have not extensively acknowledged the important role of the Elghanian family in the Plasco Building’s creation or only briefly mentioned Habib Elghanian’s name in passing. Elghanian and his brothers were among the most affluent and successful Jewish businessmen in Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They not only imported an array of goods from the West into the Iranian market and expanded infrastructure but also brought new technologies to Iran that helped the country manufacture its own goods and, as a result, helped employ thousands of Iranians in their businesses. The Elghanian family was equally generous in giving back to countless needy causes in Iran, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The Plasco Building, completed in 1962 and standing 17 stories, was the first privately built “high rise” of the modern era created in Iran. It was also the first modern “mall” of that early era in Iran, with floors that were home to many new stores for various goods and services. The Plasco Building was elegant and modern in design and structure for its time, and a huge departure from the ancient slum-like “bazaars” of Iran’s past where people typically went to buy their goods. At a time when Iran was beginning to modernize, the building was a powerful symbol of both the country’s positive transformation and the immense achievement of Iranian Jews.

It was likewise a symbol of great pride for Iranian Jews who, just four decades before, had been forced by the Qajar kings of Iran to live in poverty and in run-down ghettos.

“Jews were proud, of course, that a Jewish person had built this iconic building, but many elders in the community were apprehensive about its implications and the much expected backlash by Muslims, envious of Jewish accomplishments,” Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist living in Los Angeles, told me this week.

Jewish community leaders in Iran worried about the Plasco Building’s backlash because, according to Shahrzad Elghanayan, Habib Elghanian’s granddaughter, Iranian Shiite cleric Mahmoud Taleghani “objected to the idea that a Jew had built the tallest building of its time in Iran.” No doubt Taleghani, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other Shiite clerics were furious at the Pahlavi kings, who had created an environment of co-existence and tolerance among Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran. The late Shah of Iran and his father had essentially set aside the old Islamic Shariah laws, which were designed to impose or ensure superiority of Muslims over Jews or other “infidels.” The Plasco Building, built and owned by a Jew, was a direct slap in the face to that radical Islamic dogma at the time because the notion of a Jewish building being taller in size than Muslim-owned buildings was a totally unacceptable notion for the fanatic Iranian religious clerics.

When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country.

Those fears turned out to be prescient. On May 9, 1979, Elghanian was executed by a firing squad of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after being accused on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Elghanian first was given a 20-minute sham trial in front of the Iranian Revolution Court and TV cameras, but never was allowed to consult with an attorney, nor any chance to defend himself from the baseless charges. When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country. On that disastrous day, the lives of Iran’s Jews were forever transformed for the worse. It was then that they realized when their beloved community leader could be so easily executed with no real evidence, they too were no longer safe in a country where they had lived for nearly 3,000 years.

In 2009, on the 30th anniversary of his execution, I had the unique opportunity to interview Elghanian family members, Iranian-Jewish leaders and Iranian Muslims who knew Habib Elghanian well and who recalled their memories of his imprisonment and execution. One of the most revealing interviews I had was with Sion Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s brother, who told me that Habib had left Iran during the initial chaos of the revolution but then returned to Iran because of his patriotism and commitment to Iran’s Jews as their leader.

“We all begged him not to go back to Iran — including Israeli Prime Minister Begin, because we all knew the new regime would execute him if he returned,” Sion Elghanian said. “He said, ‘I have done nothing wrong for them to execute me. I’ve created jobs and businesses to help the country grow and helped many Iranians of all faiths. Why should they kill me?’ ”

Sion revealed his family had made plans to bribe officials to help Habib escape the prison and country, but Habib refused to go along with the plans.

“He told us he would not go along with the plan to escape because if he did, the Iranian regime would take revenge by executing Jews in Iran. In this way, he sacrificed his life for the community.”

Another revealing interview was of an Iranian-Muslim businessman named Nasser Oliae, who was a longtime Elghanian friend and had nothing but praise for him. “One day they must create a giant statue of Habib Elghanian in the middle of Tehran for all of the great things he did for that country! He brought the plastics manufacturing industry to Iran, he hired thousands of people, he gave generously to thousands of Iranians of all religions who were needy. He was a man who truly loved Iran and wanted to see the country’s success,” Oliae said.

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian was an innocent Jew who was executed for no reason by the evil Iranian regime, and that regime still has not apologized to Iranian Jewry for this injustice.

Elghanian family members sold the building in 1975 to Hojabr Yazdani, an affluent Iranian-Baha’i businessman. After the revolution, the Iranian regime’s official “nonprofit” organization, called Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, confiscated the Plasco Building from Yazdani in 1979, and has been operating it since then. Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, which translates to “organization for the oppressed people,” was a front established by the Iranian regime’s ayatollahs after the 1979 Revolution to expropriate the assets of any person who they believed was an “infidel” in order to allegedly “redistribute” it to the poor or needy in Iran. Unfortunately for Iran’s poor, the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan has in the past 38 years never given a penny to them. Instead, the money and assets this group has confiscated over the years from Jews, Muslims, Christians and Baha’is have all gone into the pockets of the ruling Iranian ayatollahs. All of the Elghanian family assets and properties were also confiscated by the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan.

What is truly unfortunate about the recent Plasco Building fire was the fact that, since it was owned by the Iranian regime, no one will be brought to justice for the failure to upkeep the building and prevent the fire hazards that brought it down. We will never know what caused the fire or explosion that destroyed this iconic building in Tehran, and sadly, the ayatollahs who profited from the building for the past 38 years will never be held accountable for the fire code violations that resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives.

In the end, the Plasco Building fire disaster not only caused the death of many individuals but the loss of one of the remaining symbols of Jewish contributions to Iran during the 20th century. The building was also a symbol of the bygone era of modernity and new development that an Iranian Jew named Habib Elghanian and his brothers brought to Iran. Today, we cannot forget the calamity that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the current Iranian regime, nor can we forget the tremendous contributions thousands of Iranian Jews made to the betterment of the nation of Iran during the 20th century. 

Are we hearing Iranian voices?

An elegant Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park provided warmth and safety for American reporters representing four news agencies to speak directly via Internet with four Iranians facing drastically different circumstances. “If we get caught talking to foreign reporters, they’ll take us to Evin prison and hang us,” said “Mobarez Naftooh,” hiding behind a screen name and speaking through a phone-line encrypted VOIP operation. 

Yet, for two hours, the quartet, sitting in cities across Iran, defied authorities in order to take turns answering an array of questions ranging from life in the Islamic Republic to the intricacies of hearing news and alerting the outside world to the realities of the situation they face. Unspoken among their audience was the reflexive ear listening for the knock on the door that, thankfully, never came. 

The force behind “The New Iran,” a U.S.-based, grass-roots organization established in mid-2010, is Iman Foroutan, an Iranian-American computer and electrical engineer with a long history of creating resistance groups; his avowed mission is to use nonviolent means to topple the Iranian regime and establish a secular democracy.

Acting as interpreter, Foroutan explained to us that at the other end of the Internet hookup were a woman described only as a “technocrat”; an attorney; a student; and a building contractor. Each, in turn, added pieces to the tapestry that became a reality check on the present situation and a view to a future that all agreed is heading toward the critical mass that would overthrow the Khamenei regime. The consensus was that external assistance is needed and that a short window of opportunity exists for it to happen.

That set the scene for a plea that echoed comments we’ve heard from Syrians during the past nine months. “Why,” they asked, “was America willing to help even with military might to oust Libya’s Gadhafi, and provide moral support for the toppling of Egypt’s Mubarak despite his long standing as a friend of the United States, but not help Iranians reach the tipping point for ousting the oppressive yet shaky government that presents a greater threat to the region and the world than Libya and Egypt combined?” 

Iranians seem surprised that American leadership hasn’t caught on to the reality that help comes in many forms and doesn’t necessarily mean a beachfront assault by the Marines or sending in waves of cruise missiles. “The U.S. seems always to be two steps behind,” “Damovand,” the contractor, charged. “There was a window of opportunity following the elections when rioting filled the streets. We hoped for help, but it never came.” They’re not asking for military intervention. “Where,” for instance, “will electricity come from if nuclear facilities are attacked?”

The Iranians said a second opportunity is now being ignored as the Arab Spring spreads throughout the region and the populace is primed for a move.

What, then, is powerful enough to bring down an oppressive regime but that doesn’t include military force? The sanctions could work, but won’t unless applied effectively. To “Mobarez Naftooh,” that means targeting the Central Bank and petroleum companies.

And information. All four of the distant voices were disheartened by the failure of the Voice of America radio to step up to the plate. “VOA might as well be staffed by agents of the Iranian government,” they all agreed. Although communicating with foreign journalists can cost one his or her life, it will not come as a surprise that the flow of reliable information remains atop the list of “must haves.” Hence, the profound disappointment with VOA. But it will no doubt surprise many that all of the Iranians named Israel Radio’s Farsi channel as the “best radio in Iran.” 

In fact, if anything surprising came of the interview it was the unequivocal dispelling of the uncompromising rejection of the Jewish state that has become the signature of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime. Imagine, instead of being told that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the mother of all Mideast conflicts and fuels all unrest found there, we’re hearing that once the Islamic Republic goes, the tinderbox the center of which is Israel disappears. “We have no borders with Israel and no relationship with Israel,” the contractor told us. “Yalda,” the sole woman of the group, echoed that “the Iranian people have no fight with Israel,” and, as if to offer proof that Ahmadinejad doesn’t speak for the people, added that “we do believe the Holocaust happened.”

So what did we learn from the Iranians who risked life and limb to make their case to four American reporters who would in turn take it to the American people? The story of the decade is unfolding and we’re remarkably ignorant of what is happening. For all of its sanctions and threats, the West has virtually allowed the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime to shut off the flow of real-time information that ultimately links the Iranian people to the world community.

The courageous lawyer known to us only as “Shahab Shahaban,” whom we are told has written the first draft of a constitution for a secular Iranian government, speaks to us in English with clarity and conviction of the possibilities of democratic changes ahead.

The will-be heroes of Iran are not attacking military convoys and blowing up government installations. Rather, they are working hard to keep open the paucity of channels through which information flows and to utilize newly breaking technology to increase the number of Iranians able to communicate with the outside world. The clear message is that the West can help a great deal more and do so with very little cost.

Once again we see that with greater attention paid to a more careful reading, the Iranian street can help us better understand what is needed and what is not, and how we can finally live up to the belief the Iranian people have in the free world.

Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line news agency, is founder of The Mideast Press Club. She can be reached at

Iranian-Americans celebrate Norooz, Persian New Year

Persian New Year, also known as Norooz, was celebrated at Los Angeles City Hall on March 16 as members of Persian American Communities Inc. — a nonprofit organization consisting of local Iranian American Jews and Muslims — joined with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the City Council.

Norooz is a secular holiday marking the first day of spring that is celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan and some central Asian countries. The holiday’s traditions date back nearly 2,000 years, and its ceremonies, according to Persian folklore, are symbolize the forces of rebirth and good.

“For us Iranians living in the city, Norooz is important to be recognized because it’s such a big part of our culture that we don’t want to see lost,” said Joe Shooshani, a local Iranian Jewish businessman.

Los Angeles is home to nearly 100,000 Iranian Americans, the largest such population outside of Iran. Although Persians have lived in the Southland for nearly three decades, L.A. city officials only started celebrating Norooz three years ago.

In addition to the City Hall event, portions of Westwood Boulevard between Wilshire and Olympic boulevards will be closed on March 25 for a public Norooz celebration.